Apple's new low-cost 2020 iPhone SE second generation is a remarkably good value for all it gives you. But, to get to that $399 price point, you forego many key features that distinguish the iPhone range.
The new iPhone SE has one particular killer feature that you will come back to again and again as you compare it to other iPhones. It's cheaper. If you're buying brand new and direct from Apple, the iPhone SE is $200 less than its cheapest rival.
That is such a significant difference that it must make the iPhone SE the only iPhone some people can afford. Even if you can comfortably stretch to a more expensive iPhone, too, then this price difference is enough that it's got to make you weigh up what is really worth your money and what is not.
For although the new iPhone SE is an extremely attractive combination of features as well as price, it does not have every feature you may be used to in an iPhone. And these missing features could either make you consider a more expensive model, or they could contribute to your deciding that you'll stay with whichever iPhone you already have.
You don't get TrueDepth and Face ID
Touch ID is as impressive today on the new iPhone SE as it was when it debuted on the iPhone 5S back in 2013. It's fast, secure, and as well as quickly unlocking your phone, it lets you quickly pay for goods or services with Apple Pay.
This technology is seven years old, though, and as of the launch of the iPhone SE, precisely one iPhone in the entire range has it. All of the rest of Apple's current lineup uses Face ID and for the most part, that is better. Much better.
Face ID is more secure, harder to hack, and since the original generation of it in the iPhone X, has become faster than Touch ID. Right now with the coronavirus we are having the issue that faces with a mask can't reliably be recognized, but in general use, glancing at your iPhone has become much faster than pressing your thumb onto a button and waiting.
Plus, there are people who find that Touch ID is unreliable. That can be because of the cases that their employers require them to use, it can be because your finger is damp or sweaty. Whatever the reason, Touch ID can frustrate people who don't find any difficulty with Face ID.
So for convenience, speed, and security, Face ID is a strong reason to buy a different iPhone. Your choices are the iPhone XR starting at $599, the iPhone 11 at $699, iPhone 11 Pro at $999, and iPhone 11 Pro Max at $1,099.
To save you counting, those prices range from $200 to $700 more than an iPhone SE. In other words, for the price of an iPhone 11 Pro, you could buy two iPhone SE models and have change enough over to get a case.
This is one area where the iPhone SE, as good as it is, is lacking whichever way you look at it. If you're someone who loves the older, smaller, 4-inch display, then the 4.7-inch one of the iPhone SE is more of a difference than it sounds. It's the difference between being able to work the phone entirely with one hand, and not.
Then if you do like larger screens, as so many people do, then have to see the 4.7-inch iPhone SE display as being paltry. Both the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11 have 6.1-inch screens, while the iPhone 11 Pro has a 5.8-inch one.
Even those don't really compare to the larger models, or what used be known as the Plus ones. The current iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 6.5-inch screen — and that's now your only choice for a larger form factor. The iPhone SE has really only replaced the iPhone 8, but its launch saw the larger iPhone 8 Plus vanish too.
The iPhone 8 Plus was actually bigger, physically, than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, but it's perhaps not a great loss to the lineup because that larger case held a comparatively smaller screen. The iPhone 8 Plus had a 5.5-inch display in a chassis that was slightly bigger than the iPhone 11 Pro Max with its 6.1-inch one.
That old iPhone 8 Plus was also substantially bigger than the iPhone 11 Pro, running to 6.24-inches by 3.07-inches compared to the newer iPhone's 5.67-inches by 2.81-inches.
The reason that even the 11 Pro can have a smaller chassis yet a larger screen is down to how the newer phones have an almost edge to edge display. The iPhone 8 Plus, and the new iPhone SE, both have old-style thick bezels around the screen.
You can still buy an iPhone 8 Plus from resellers where it will typically cost around $499, or about $600 less than the only other large-scale model, the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
The iPhone SE is repeatedly said to be the old iPhone 8 with new internal hardware, but actually its screen goes back much further than that. In terms of physical size, resolution and technology, the screen in the 2020 iPhone SE is almost the same as that of the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6S from 2014/15. The sole difference is that the iPhone SE's version supports True Tone so it alters color levels depending on your surroundings.
In the six years since the iPhone 6, though, displays have moved on. They're edge to edge, or nearly, and instead of the old LCD display panel, many of them use OLED. This technology provides a better black and overall an improved contrast.
It's not as if the difference is even close. Where the iPhone SE has a contrast ratio of 1,400:1, the iPhone 11 Pro provides 2,000,000:1. No question, the screens on the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max are better than that on the iPhone SE. They're also brighter on the iPhone 11 Pro, at 800 nits instead of 625 nits on the iPhone SE.
As clear as these differences are when either you hold the iPhones next to each other, or you downgrade, there's no other way you'd even see the SE screen as a problem. It is clear, bright, and sharp, and if the other models are clearer, brighter, and sharper, that doesn't make the iPhone SE screen unusably poor.
Cameras are an issue
This is another area where there's no comparison whatsoever. The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max come with a triple camera system on the rear, and all three are lenses are excellent. They're 12MP and provide seamless switching between their Wide, Ultra Wide, and Telephoto cameras.
The iPhone SE has one camera on the back. It is a 12MP camera, and it is Wide, but it's one camera and that's your lot.
Except that of course all iPhones also have a front-facing camera. Here the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max are better than the iPhone SE, or any other model for that matter. The front or selfie camera on an iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max is a 12MP one that's as capable of shooting 4K video as the rear cameras.
With the iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max, and exclusively with these phones, you can shoot videos equally well from front and back. If you're making a YouTube video where you're talking to the camera, this is a difference that means you can watch yourself on the phone screen to make sure you are framed correctly throughout. It means you can use a Teleprompter app right there with the selfie lens.
For the iPhone SE, you get just a 7MP front or selfie camera. It's fine. We've had worse. But the difference is noticeable, and this camera is really just for video calls.
That said, the iPhone SE does improve dramatically on the old iPhone 8. Its camera includes portrait lighting effects previously not seen on this size of phone.
Where Apple expects you to come from
Apple has long maintained a comparison page on its website where you can select up to three iPhone models and read the basic specifications of each to compare. With the launch of the iPhone SE, though, it has gone further and created a dedicated Why Upgrade page to comparing that new phone with certain others.
As well as a side by side listing of specifications, this comparison page explains what differences you'll actually feel. So, for instance, if you choose to compare the new SE to a iPhone 8, it will first tell you that there is a difference in the processor.
The iPhone SE has an Apple A13 Bionic chip which, the comparison explains, means the phone is "much faster when launching apps, exploring AR, or sword-fighting on motorcycles." It then lists specifics, saying that the speed of the A13 Bionic processor is between 1.4 and 2 times that of the A11 Bionic in the iPhone 8.
Nobody's going to trade in an iPhone 11 Pro Max for an iPhone SE. But you could very well be undecided between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11, or the iPhone XR. Fortunately, we can help you out, though.
Upgrading doesn't always mean improving
Just as Apple is assuming you're upgrading from an old iPhone, we're making a similar presumption. And there is one last feature that might mean you instead choose to stay with whatever you've got.
For with the introduction of the iPhone SE, and the dropping of the iPhone 8, every model in Apple's current line up uses Haptic Touch. We've lamented before about Apple abandoning the older 3D Touch, but it's never coming back, and the only way you'll have it is if you hold on to an older iPhone.
Yet as much as we can rip apart the new iPhone SE for what it doesn't have, and what other iPhones do, ultimately your buying choice is always going to be a compromise. As well as picking a model you can afford, there are issues over what features matter to you.
And while we do again and again keep coming back to how the iPhone SE starts at just $399, it's not going to be a hit just because it's the cheapest iPhone available. The iPhone SE is going to be a hit because it's a truly superb combination of price and performance.